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Margaret Thatcher in The Spectator

Mrs Thatcher goes to Brussels

24 March 1984: A leader unafraid to talk about money

13 April 2013

9:00 AM

13 April 2013

9:00 AM

‘Délégation Royaume Uni. Salle 4’ announces a scruffy piece of paper projected onto the black and white television screens of the Centre Charlemagne. The journalists hurry upstairs for the latest from Mr Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary. Mr Ingham is not conspicuously communautaire. He tells us who spoke in the session — Mr Lubbers, Herr Kohl, Mrs Thatcher and ‘Mr Papandreou — I always call him Mr Papadopoulos’. A nodding acquaintance with recent Greek history would have made Mr Ingham realise that such a slip, though easier on the tongue, is as politically uncomfortable as calling M. Mitterrand ‘Marshal Pétain’.

But then Mr Ingham is not paid to spread sweetness and light. His heavy face and thick eyebrows and Yorkshire accent presage no good to foreigners and suggest an impatience with discussion of ideals. ‘Yes,’ he said on the first day, when asked whether Britain would consider different means to achieving the same end: ‘That’s what we’re talking about — money.’

Mr Ingham’s attitude — which seems to be a succinct expression of Mrs Thatcher’s — is generally agreed to be deplorable here. ‘Thatcher veut ses sous’, says the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, as if the Prime Minister were quarrelling over who ordered second helpings of bread in a shared restaurant meal. The same people who have complained incessantly about the amount of money spent on the Falklands are now saying that Britain should not quibble over its EEC contribution because it is no more than that amount. After the negotiations finally broke down over Britain’s budget rebate, M. Mitterrand spoke of the unanimity of the nine against the intransigence of the one, and more darkly of future meetings between those countries sympathetic to Community ideals, implying Britain’s exclusion. Mrs Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe did get somewhere with their arguments about future control of the budget, but the communautaire theory remains that, since the sums involved are ‘small’ (£15 billion in total from the ten members) the way out of embarrassment is to increase them. The thing is presented as a battle between the accountants (us) and the visionaries (the other nine).

Except for the Germans, the visionaries are making money out of the status quo, and when one is making money one is more reticent on the subject than when one is paying it out. However genuine the sentiment for a ‘United Europe’ among the nine, the confrontation in Brussels (as in Athens), results from a clash between their domestic political requirements and those of Britain. M. Mitterrand is a rural romantic who thinks that the men of the land of France deserve special treatment. Even if he were not, he would still know that he could not hope for success against M. Chirac in the European Assembly elections this summer if he did not defend that special treatment. The French have the advantage of chairing the summits this year and so can organise the agenda and the timing. M. Mitterrand is looking for a sort of constructive anti-Britishness which will win him votes but also allow him to pull off a final settlement at the June summit in his own capital immediately after the elections. So this week he has been trying to make the British look stupid, provincial and isolated without pushing them beyond endurance.

The few remaining Englishmen, such as Mr Edward Heath, who think that the future success of Britain can only be guaranteed by the EEC, appear to believe that the correct response to the pressure from the Continent is to give in. By moaning about our lot, they say, we merely isolate ourselves. We should be jumping in head first rather than dipping our toes in the water and complaining of the cold: this may be temporarily expensive, but it will make us accepted, respected, and therefore, eventually, powerful. To which one might reply that even the Heathites are extremely vague about the eventual benefits, that a policy of acquiescence is not usually a good prelude to a drive for greater influence and, above all, that no politician, nor even an entire political party, is likely to be able to convince British voters to agree with such a policy.

There is a good reason for Mrs Thatcher’s uncouth determination to talk about money at these summits — that it is money coming from her taxpayers. There may also be a less creditable reason. This is that it prevents her from having to talk about the larger question of Britain’s membership of the EEC. The referendum of 1975 gave politicians the welcome opportunity of dropping a subject which divided their parties (although Labour took it up again in opposition) but any major crisis in the EEC is bound to raise it again. For the founders and perpetuators of the EEC idea do not think of it as static. They hope that the Community could eventually run the foreign policy, the entire trading system and even, perhaps, the defence of its members, and that it should do so through permanent supra-national institutions which would be sovereign over the nations which they subsumed. One does not need this week’s opinion polls to confirm that any British politician ready to conference such a development would effectively destroy his career.

Even in the first enthusiasm of Conservatives for British entry, there were many who were only persuaded to agree to it because of the promise of strictly economic benefit. There were others who insisted on constitutional safeguards before they would support it. Now a less Euro-centred generation of Tory MPs is still more guarded than its equivalent of ten years ago. If Mrs Thatcher does consent to an increase of ‘own resources’ (the money, mainly taken from VAT payments, which composes most of our contribution to the EEC), she will have to get it approved by parliament. If, as Mr Nicholas Budgen argued in the Budget debate last week, such an increase involves an increase in the power of the European Assembly, the Conservatives are committed to a full-scale Act of Parliament to permit it. Even if not, so that no more than a single division is required, Mrs Thatcher will have to convince the House that it is sensible to pay out more to an institution which is already known to be swallowing up British money. As she said outright at her final press conference here, she has to make any increase ‘saleable’ to the British parliament.

So British policy towards the EEC cannot afford, both literally and metaphorically, to be anything but modest. Since becoming Foreign Secretary last year, Sir Geoffrey Howe has tried to use his well-known gift for modesty to this end. ‘I am a European’, he declared to the Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels last month, yet he dwelt not on the dream of European political unity, but on the need to establish a genuine ‘Common Market’. There should be free lorry movement, he said, and a liberation of air transport. It was an admirable defence of free trade and budgetary control, not a call for a new supra-national order.

The trouble is that the other member countries do not really share Sir Geoffrey’s essentially sensible position. Protectionism is a greater feature and a more powerful political interest in the organisation of the EEC than is free trade. The momentum is against Britain. It is therefore inevitable that she be the odd one out at each summit, and so her Prime and Foreign Ministers will waste a great deal of their time fighting for the impossible. It follows that Britain’s membership of the EEC is fundamentally anomalous. But what follows from that is too painful for a hard-pressed politician to contemplate. M. Mitterrand has helped Mrs Thatcher. He has given her a platform for the European elections capable of winning both pro- and anti-European votes — I stand up to Europe, she can say to the antis. Let us see a good deal through, she can say to the pros. Difficult political arguments are therefore postponed. On Tuesday night Mrs Thatcher seemed duly grateful.

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